Celebrating the accomplishments of women should not be constrained to just one month.
Honoring the women of the past, encouraging those of the present and creating solid foundations for girls to lead the future, it takes women getting together in an effort to actively cultivate conversations to showcase achievements and continue the strive for excellence.
Leading the charge for Haitian-American women is Jihan Antoine, president of Bel Ti Fi Inc. which aims to recognize and celebrate dynamic Haitian-American women of the past, present and future through events, workshops and more. What started as a public discussion group has grown into something bigger than Antoine could have ever imagined.
“At the time the organization was only going to be a public forum or like a discussion group to talk about cultural nuances or cultural stereotypes that women of Haitian-American backgrounds or descent experience,” Antoine said. “When I was doing this public forum with Bel Ti Fi to just get a sense of what was out there, it was professional challenges, personal issues and self-confidence issues. I saw a large group of the women my age who were very serious scholastically, being very focused in school but they weren’t as confident.”
Antoine is a Long Island resident and Haitian descendant with a background in journalism currently working as a publicist. Like many West Indian households, the expectation of excellence in education was always kept very high. In a family full of entrepreneurs and high degree holders, Antoine’s decision to pursue a career in media was met with some highly raised eyebrows. Despite some pushback, she attended Stony Brook University with the constant support of her grandmother to reach her desired goals.
The sudden passing of her grandmother sparked the realization that her anchor was also gone. In the challenging field of media, she realized she was more aware of what she looked like compared to other news anchors on television and with that her confidence and passion dipped.
“Bel Ti Fi was unplanned. It was founded on behalf of my grandmother and while I was attending Stony Brook she suddenly passed away. It was during a time where I was studying very hard and really trying to decide what I wanted to do in college which has always been journalism but while I was persuing my bachelors in journalism, she was one of the few people who supported my aspirations. She respected it,” she said.
“I think when she first talked to me about this, I was in full grief because it was a few months at the onset of losing my mom. I thought how different we were both grieving and then immediately after I realized that the impact my mother had on her as a granddaughter and it was an incredible way of sharing those lessons she had learned from her grandmother and distributing it to a bigger platform. Therefore I became quite proud,” Chantal Alexander, Jihan’s mother, said.
I already had my own personal complexities and as cliche as it can be they genuinely had a major role in my development. Like some, young black women I did have an issue with my complexion. I didn’t think that I was pretty, I just had more issues with my complexion as I got older.”
It was with these newfound challenges that Antoine decided to celebrate her grandmother’s legacy through the accidental creation of an organization that would ultimately provide a support system for other Haitian-American women experiencing the same feelings and challenges. In October 2009, Bel Ti Fi Inc., which directly translates to “Pretty Young Girl” in Creole, was born and their first major event followed in March 2010 with a panel discussion and luncheon; establishing their first signature event.
“There were so many different issues and challenges that were beyond a forum or discussion group,” she said. “I didn’t want to position myself as an expert or be at the forefront but I wanted to create something that had the best of both worlds with the Haitian-American mentality. Outside of the forum I said I had to make workshops or different platforms that some of these issues I’m having with and some of my peers were having but weren’t talking about it.”
Now in their fifth year of operation, Bel Ti Fi Inc. is kicking the organization into high gear. Revamping their digital presence, Antoine and her committee members are expanding their events to include more resources, broaden networks between women and fuel conversations meant to spark change in whatever field they choose to pursue.
Antoine has also created a subsector within the organization titled Bel Gason – or Pretty Young Boy – to include men as a response to the recent killings of young black men across the nation. The organizational core pillars are not changing as the focus remains on women, instead, the inclusion of Bel Gason is to further explore Haitian cultural sterotypes as it relates to relationships between Haitian-American men and women and more. Partnering with other male organizations is allowing for Antoine and her team to create workshops beneficial to young men highlighting Haitian male leaders like the CEO of Nintendo.
“My personal want to do more, this year I launched Bel Gason. With my young brother, who went through a major life turning situation I felt that I had to create a bridge for my ‘bel gason’s’ because I have been very scared, very moved, very outraged and feeling helpless with what is going on with the amount of young black men that are being murdered,” she said.
During the Haitian Heritage Month, Antoine and her committee crafted an event series to help women build the perfect foundation to reach new heights. Lending inspiration from her mother, a celebrated architect, the series were titled “The BLYOUPrint” — honing in on the importance of putting the best practices to build the best version of yourself.
According to Antoine, through a series of workshops and signature events — such as the initial luncheon launched in their first year — Bel Ti Fi Inc. employed architectural dialogue to demonstrate how to obtain personal and professional fulfillment through expert planning, developing and building a strong foundation. The BLYOUPrint included three distinct workshops to feed your “mind, body and soul” throughout May and ended with their fourth luncheon and leadership event in June.
“This year represents the BLYOUPrint and after five years I felt as though I wanted to grow Bel Ti Fi more, I want to take more risks,” she said. “To me it is the five-year mark of an organization that I wasn’t even sure was going to stay around that long. We’re going to be partnering with one of the biggest design showrooms and all of the programs that we’re doing is going to be talking about the importance of foundation and stability.”
Inspired by her mother’s profession of architecture, Chantal considers the term to be the perfect basis for a young woman aiming to kickstart their life to a new level.
“A blueprint is a term that’s used in architecture but it is the similar to a checklist. It’s the foundation of any change. It’s a very active word. It has an action. It’s a language that people can look at and understand so I think it is a perfect term for someone who is building a life at many of the stage young girls are,” Chantal said.
Keep up with Jihan Antoine and Bel Ti Fi Inc. belie